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Amped Up About Recording Studios: An Interview with Brian Masiello, Andy Carballeira, and Matt Azevedo

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Acentech-Recording Studio Design blog

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing three Acentech colleagues whom I consider to be recording studio design and technology savants (although they prefer the term ‘nerds’). Brian Masiello, CTS, a Principal in our Technology Group, specializes in AV system design and has a background in engineering acoustics and music; Andy Carballeira, INCE Bd. Cert., a Principal in our Architectural Acoustics group, developed an interest in acoustics and engineering from his musical training; and Matt Azevedo, Senior Scientist, had a career in sound recording and mastering prior to expanding his career into architectural acoustics and auralization technology.

SK: Gents, how did you get interested or involved in recording studios?

Brian: I had a couple of recording courses at the University of Hartford. I did that for a few years and that kicked off my interest while I was studying acoustics. I also had a really cool experience while recording with one of my bands at a studio called A-Pawling Studios in Pawling, New York. It’s the studio where Daryl Hall and John Oates did their recordings, and they later had a VH1 show that was filmed and produced there too, called Live from Daryl’s House. Just hanging out in the control room with the engineer and watching him move the knobs and hearing the ADAT recording machines kick in, I thought it was really cool to see how it all worked firsthand.

Matt: I figured being a musician wasn’t going to pan out, so I decided that going to school for recording was a path to steady employment, which made sense when I was 17. I got my Bachelors in Music Performance and Sound Recording Technology at UMass Lowell, and went on to being an assistant engineer and eventually staff engineer at a mastering studio called M Works. I was there while they were building out a new facility that George Auspurger designed. I got to see a studio being put together from demolition through commissioning and I was fascinated by the whole process. Eventually it turned out that being a studio engineer wasn’t the one-way ticket to economic independence I’d hoped for, and so I did a masters in acoustics at Rensselaer. I had spent my 20s sitting in a room and having strong opinions about what I was hearing – that intersection between being a mastering engineer and the architecture it took place in was always present. That dual history of being a working engineer and an acoustician has helped me to convince other working engineers on my design ideas and to get my opinions built, which has resulted in some rooms that people really like working in.

SK: So you were good at telling them,“This is how sound should sound.”

Matt: Right. And the reality is, in most spaces, you get more energy reflected from the room than is actually coming out of the speakers, so you really can’t get very high-end listening environments without starting from architecture, no matter how much money you want to throw at your speakers. There are a number of companies that will sell you a very expensive digital processing box and tell you it will correct your acoustics – but that promise of one-stop acoustics in a box doesn’t work in practice. DSP is great for tuning that last 5%, but the other 95% is getting the room right.

Andy: Similar to Matt and Brian, my interest (in recording studios) started as a musician. I studied classical piano and jazz, and I learned to play the Hammond organ in church. I wanted to study music but had an interest in engineering as well. I went to Berklee and studied recording technology, in what they call the Music Production Engineering program. And I learned pretty quickly that working in recording studios is super hard – it’s really tough on your body, and involves hours (and a diet) that can be unhealthy – and I had no desire to work long hours for low money, as I wasn’t as driven by the art, like some of my classmates were. So I thought, ‘how do combine music and engineering?’ I had this acoustics class at Berklee that intersected with the arts and engineering, and so I found a nice balance, a nice career that was music-adjacent and let me keep music performance just for myself. My primary love is as a tinkerer – and recording studios are an opportunity to tinker at the intersection of all these cool disciplines: electrical and mechanical engineering, architecture, critical listening, psychology – which helps in translating what the client is looking for into a built environment. I’ve designed several dozen studios across the country, and one close to my heart is The Record Company, which is right here in Boston. They provide low-cost recording spaces, focusing on urban youth ages 12-25. I designed several of their studios and am also a founding member.

SK: What are some current trends in recording studio design? How has technology (like the internet) changed recording production, and in doing so, changed studio design?

Brian: For technology, Dante is a digital audio transport we’re seeing used more and more in recording studios. We’re also seeing more studios implementing the Dolby Atmos surround sound format.

SK: As far as technology trends, and not involving the build-out of the studio?

Brian: It’s both. It involves the build-out because it affects where you’re putting your speakers, and if there’s conduit infrastructure involved. Dante cabling is a lot easier than running multiple analog cables because it uses networking cable that can carry many channels of digital audio through a single cable, and you don’t need to use a cable for each channel.

Matt: I think for anything but the most basic recording studio, Dante is definitely becoming the way you run audio over any distance. It takes so much work to put tie-lines to multiple spaces in a facility, and analog is not great for noise performances over very long distances. So, for institutional facilities and more complex production facilities, Dante is what people are now doing. It lets you move 128 channels of audio on one CAT6 cable with no signal degradation. Right now there is a lot of enthusiasm about spatial audio, rather like the wave of ‘surround sound’ enthusiasm in the early aughts. There is a big push (at major label levels) for either Atmos or Apple Spatial Audio. Spatial audio can be really cool, but a basic Atmos set-up is 7-9 channels, a full set-up is 15 channels plus subwoofers, making it a profoundly expensive thing to get into in a serious way.

SK: What type of studio would use this technology?

Matt: The big market for Atmos is film and high-end TV, so for post-production and scoring studios is practically mandatory. Putting out records in 5.1 (surround sound) never happened on a meaningful scale, but DVDs and BluRays have had surround audio on them continuously. Home theater is the one time you can expect your audience to be sitting down in the middle of the room, with speakers in the correct places and the screen in front of them, and experience surround content in the way it should be experienced. The question is, is this standard durable enough, when you fold it down to stereo speakers, or a car system, or earbuds – the environments people listen to music in – is it durable enough through those changes that there’s any benefit to producing music in it? The initial costs are very high. The big things that independent musicians make money on are Bandcamp and vinyl sales, and those are both stereo formats… so without a label that has investment in a spatial audio content pipeline, the selling point for an independent musician is marginal. But, if you do high-end work, or have a studio that can double-dip and do post-production work and music production work, then having both a traditional primarily stereo mixing space with satellite speakers to expand that to an Atmos setup gives people the option of working in either format.

Andy: Let’s start with the listener, the consumer of the product that’s made in a recording studio. Consumers have become increasingly savvy – while as audio nerds we scoff at earbuds, the objective truth is that the audio quality of an earbud today is better than some high-end headphones from 10 years ago. So listeners have access to much higher quality audio, and are coming to demand it. And what that means is that content-producing studios are under much more of a microscope. We used to be able to ‘get away with things’ because people didn’t really hear them correctly to begin with, like they had the left speaker in the kitchen and the right speaker in the living room, and whether or not you had the stereo balance right was sort of like, meh, who cares? Now I find the listeners are more savvy, they are rejecting things that are overly-loud, they are more and more calling for lossless formats. In addition to spatial audio, a big trend is that they don’t want to hear lossy compression any more. So, all that is being driven by the listeners.

Then there’s recording facilities. They’re trying to expand what they can do and expand their offerings. They look to existing spaces that may have a lot of challenges (electrical, noise, HVAC) and that focus on expansion. And in the context of a new studio, the focus is expandability. What do they need to do today, to make sure that, 5 years from now, we’re not opening up the walls so we can stuff more copper in? What infrastructure do we need to be putting in today, if we want to support new uses tomorrow?

Finally, just about every corporation has a recording studio now. If you are a Fortune 500 company, you have a recording studio. Those vary in what they need to do, but primarily they establish a thing that is related to the “propaganda of audio.” That is, people who sound authoritative, they are taken more seriously. Having low-noise, high signal strength, solid transmission is important – so when a corporate leader speaks to other people in the company or its stockholders, that’s become a huge focus and a fair amount of the work we do.

SK: Where are the big name studios, and why?

Andy: A lot of people have left the urban core, especially the people that have the money to build recording studios. What we see is one and two-person shops in these rural/sububran areas. Some of the things they are doing are new, like putting in solar arrays. And that can be a nightmare for recording studios in terms of having clean power that’s quiet, and still powers older gear to get the best performance. Everyone wants solar, everyone wants these alternate power systems. And connected to architecture and sustainability is daylight and glass, and surfaces that are organic. “Everyone knows” that wood and glass sound great – except for acousticians – who have enormous problems with them all the time. It’s really hard to deliver high-end, critical listening spaces and still meet some of the architectural aesthetics or interior design aspirations. The most successful firms that are doing this integrate acoustics, architecture, and interior design. They know how to take cutting-edge interior design trends, and integrate acoustic treatments and recording studio equipment.

Brian: Andy talked about the big name studios moving out of urban areas. There’s a reputable mixing engineer named Eric Valentine who moved from LA. He bought this huge farm up near Burlington, VT and converted it into a studio. It looks incredible. Rich Costey, another reputable mixing engineer, moved up to Vermont too.

Matt: It used to be, up until 10-20 years ago, all the big studios were in New York, LA, and Nashville because, like how all the tech firms cluster around San Francisco, that’s where the talent pool is. The new reality is studios can’t afford the rent in New York and LA now. I’ve seen top studios in those places where they are wallpapered in platinum records, and they can’t afford the rent! They’re all losing their leases because buildings are being converted to condos. There are still people doing tons of work in those markets, lots of small/indie/fringe places, and some big ones like Universal Music or Sony, backstopping them with corporate money, but the studio ecosystem is much more geographically diverse now

Andy: Of the big three, Nashville is the one that’s growing the most now. Rent is affordable there, so musicians can afford to live there. The thing about Nashville is, the players are killin’, the live music scene’s awesome, and it’s an inspiring place to be. That’s what New York and LA used to have, which has disappeared.

Matt: There’s this diaspora of people out of the big cities, so studios are making themselves a destination, they’re setting up in some gorgeous place up the Hudson Valley or in Vermont so when the band comes to work they feel like they’re on vacation, with a nice kitchen and sleeping quarters for everybody. So you have a happy wilderness retreat for two weeks and you come out with a record. Even with the added expense of ‘resort’ amenities, it’s still cheaper than rent in Manhattan.

Then you have a bunch of facilities one thriving in what used to be called a “secondary market.” Places like Machines with Magnets in Pawtucket; bands come from all over the world to record at Machines. They have a whole building, a former department store. It’s a great facility. There is God City in Salem, MA. Q Division just opened a beautiful new space in Somerville.

SK: What do you see happening with technology or spaces for recording studios in 5-10 years?

Brian: The thing that comes to mind is the whole home studio – for music recording, or voice-over work or podcasts. I don’t know if this is a 5-10 year thing because it’s really a “now” thing. The equipment has become much more affordable. People are making great recordings at home. Sometimes they can mix it themselves, or they can send their home recordings off to a specialized mixing engineer.

Matt: I think we will see the trend toward high-atmosphere, super top-end facilities, then a giant hole where the former high end was, a small “middle class” of places like Machines and Q and God City, and then lots and lots of fully in-the-box rooms with little to no hardware except for production microphones – very small commercial facilities or people doing mixing and overdubs in small spaces. So, you go to the fancy studio for 2 days and track everything, and then you’ve blown your budget, so then you go to the cheap place or back to your own apartment to do all the mixing. That’s the commercial market now, the small pinnacle that’s left, and then everything is kind of compressing down, lower and wider.

Andy: I have some big picture predictions. I think high-res and lossless audio are here to stay, that consumers will continue to demand high-quality audio. I also think spatial audio is here to stay, and that people really like it now, and the difference between 5.1 back then and now is that it’s much more accessible to the average consumer to get a really compelling spatial experience, and to refine that experience as they nerd deeper and deeper into that topic. Apple has adopted it, and if it’s on your iPhone you’re likely to use it. What does that mean from a creative perspective? I think for the first time in a long, long, long time, as in thousands of years, the idea of space as a dimension to composition will re-emerge. Artists have composed with rhythm, pitch, and timbre, though a significant component of live music is actually where things are in space. A component of early music (before recording) was space – where were the other sounds coming from, and what did it sound like as instruments moved around you. So I think that as a dimension of musical information, space will become more important in a composition, and listeners will be in a position to hear it.

Brian: It’ll be interesting to see where new processing technologies like the Apple SOC (Silicon on Chip) can take things. We’re seeing how people are able to connect to remote recording studios through an internet connection to take advantage of analog equipment in other studios, which is great because you’re essentially renting that equipment that would otherwise be too expensive to purchase. We’re also seeing advances in software taking advantage of artificial intelligence.

I’m really excited about something being developed by a company called GPU Audio. Most audio processing in a mix is done locally on the computer’s CPU. GPU Audio is working with audio software developers on a way to offload the processing from the CPU, and apply it instead to the computer’s GPU (Graphics Processing Unit). This will give a lot of users extra efficiency on their computers.

SK: Thank you, gents, for this very informative (and nerdy) ‘deep dive.’ I feel like I now know more about recording studio technology than the average citizen. We hope this info was entertaining and useful to others, especially those who may be planning or designing a studio!